Anxiety is frustrating. You feel like a stranger inside your own body. You feel like there are mini explosions inside your head, inside your heart. Sometimes, you shake. Sometimes, you sweat. Sometimes, the sensations are hard to describe: You simply feel off or downright terrible.
Your thoughts race each other around a very large track for hours. Sometimes, these thoughts speak of inevitable, impending doom. Sometimes, they’re more subtle, whispering and strengthening your self-doubt.
And, naturally, you let these anxious thoughts and sensations dictate your life.
You let your anxiety determine whether you go to the movies, whether you ask for a raise. You let it determine whether you bring up a certain topic with your boss (you don’t), whether you tell a friend no (you don’t). You let it determine the opportunities you pursue. You let it narrow your life.
And often you hate your anxiety for making you feel this way, for limiting your life. And sometimes, maybe often, you hate yourself for it, too.
Dealing with anxiety is difficult. Because it’s so visceral. Who wants to feel discomfort, a kind of discomfort that sometimes feels like it lodges itself deep within our bones? Because the thoughts can be so convincing.
You might try everything you can to make it disappear. But, of course, it never does. Maybe it subsides momentarily. But it inevitably returns. Maybe it’s always with you, lingering in the background and peaking at different times of the week or day.
While we can’t eliminate our anxiety, we can navigate it. We can diminish its power—and live fulfilling lives, anyway.
In the book Anxiety Happens: 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind John P. Forsyth, Ph.D, and Georg H. Eifert, Ph.D, share a variety of valuable and practical strategies. Below are suggestions and insights from their excellent book. Stop trying to flip the switch. One of the reasons we get so angry with ourselves is because we think we can and should be able to turn off our anxiety—like a light switch. We think we should be able to control it. So we try to breathe our anxiety away. We try to run it, drink it and think it away.
But, according to the authors, that’s impossible. To illustrate just how impossible that is, they suggest making yourself as happy as you can right now—which isn’t the same as thinking of something that makes you happy. Instead, “just flip the happiness switch and be super happy for the sake of it.” Or make yourself fall fully and deeply in love with the first person you see. Or use your willpower to make your left leg numb, so much so that if you were pricked by a needle, you wouldn’t feel it. Or without covering your eyes, ears or nose, stop seeing, hearing and smelling.
“When you try to flip the ‘no more anxiety’ switch, you’ll activate every aspect of your nervous system that keeps you feeling anxious and afraid. And you’ll do things that end up keeping you stuck and miserable.”
Do the opposite. Anxiety actually isn’t the problem. Avoidance is. Because trying to avoid our anxiety and fear only fuels them, and it shrinks our lives, write Forsyth and Eifert. “There’s no way to approach a vital life while avoiding emotional and psychological pain.”
So the next time you want to avoid an activity, a place or a person, do the opposite. For this exercise create two columns on a piece of paper. Title one column “toxic avoidance,” and list every action you take, distraction you turn to or strategy you employ to avoid feeling anxious.
For instance, you might write: “I stay in my cubicle to avoid seeing my boss because I’m afraid he will criticize my work.” In the second column write down the opposite for each avoidance tactic, such as: “I won’t go out of my way to avoid my boss; if I happen to see him in the hallway, I can simply say hello and keep walking.”
Don’t buy it. According to Forsyth and Eifert, our minds are like skilled salespeople, who try to sell us certain thoughts. Some of these thoughts are helpful, but some are not. Unhelpful thoughts inevitably leave us feeling anxious and like our life is getting smaller and smaller. When that happens, try this technique: Say, “I’m having the thought that…”
So if you’re thinking, “I’ll have a panic attack if I go out,” think or say aloud, “I’m having the thought that I’ll have a panic attack if I go out.” If a certain image pops up, you can say, “I’m having the image that [insert an image that bothers you].” You also can say, “I’m having the feeling that …”
Or, if that doesn’t resonate with you, say: “There’s thinking,” “There’s a picture,” “There’s a sensation.”
“This will give you space to see your thoughts for what they are—products of your mind that need not always be listened to, trusted or believed.”
Replace your “but.” How often do you say, “I’d like to _______, but I’m afraid of _______” as in, I’d like to meet my friends for dinner, but I’m afraid of getting anxious and embarrassing myself.
According to Forsyth and Eifert, “Anytime you put ‘but’ after the first part of a statement, you undo and negate what you just said.” They also note that “but” turns anxiety into a big obstacle that must be overcome before you can take action. Which is a significant way to shrink your life.
Instead, come up with three situations where you wanted to do something “but” you were afraid. Next cross out the word “but” in each scenario, and replace it with “and.” Then reread the statements, and see if they feel any different.
When you use “and,” what you’re really doing is giving yourself the freedom and permission to do what you want and to feel anxious. From now on whenever you use “but,” replace it with “and.”
Use your senses. This is a grounding exercise you can use any time you get pulled into the past by a painful or traumatic memory: Use your senses to ground yourself in the present.
For instance, you might taste something strong like a lemon or black coffee. You might smell something pungent like fresh herbs or perfume. You might touch something with a unique texture. You might look at something bright or unusual. You might listen for sounds that stand out in your surroundings.
Make different choices. Practice having a more welcoming relationship with your anxiety. Instead of an adversary, treat your anxiety as a friend: “This doesn’t mean you like everything about your anxiety, any more than you like everything about a friend, partner or family member,” write Forsyth and Eifert.
Anxiety isn’t a choice. But, as the authors underscore, we do have a choice in how we respond to it. Reflect on the choices you can make. Here are several examples:
- “I can observe what my mind says without further action, rather than doing what my mind says.”
- “I can meet my anxieties with compassion and allow them to be there, rather than struggling with them or trying to make them go away.”
- “I can practice patience with myself, rather than blaming and putting myself or others down for having anxieties.”
Dealing with anxiety is hard. Before we know it, we let it dictate our lives. We let it stop us from doing things we want, from doing things that sincerely support and inspire us. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Try the above techniques and/or work with a therapist. You can live a meaningful, satisfying life based on your values—even when anxiety is lurking.